FACTS ON BUILDING CONSTRUCTION
Richard L. Humphrey Condemns Flimsy Structures.
The following facts were taken from one or two of the daily papers of January 13, and were prepared for publication and authorised by the National Association of Cement Users.:
Cleveland, Ohio, January 12.—“In our large cities are thousands of firetraps, any one of which may at any time cause a conflagration that will wipe out millions of dollars worth of property and destroy the lives of many people,” declared Richard L. Humphrey, of Philadelphia, president of the National Association of Cement Users, at the opening session of the annual convention on January 12. “Our villages and hamlets are for the most part a collection of firetraps (continued Mr. Humphrey), it is a crime to permit public assemblages above the first floor of any building which is not fireproof. It is a crime to have a public meeting-place in any building that is not fireproof.” Mr. Humphrey made an earnest plea for a general revision of the building codes of the country, and suggested that, if an immediate reform cannot be obtained in any other way, the public should place a general boycott on all buildings that are known to be firetraps, especially those in which the public assemble.
He said in part: “In its mad rush towards a prosperity unparalleled in the history of civilisation this nation has permitted abuses which are as startling to the outside world, as has been our advancement. Our priceless heritage of natural resources has been squandered with a prodigality that threatens the exhaustion of many of them before the end of another century. The most serious is the depletion of our magnificent forests which have been slashed and cut with such a ruthless hand that, unless drastic measures are at once taken to save what remains and strive to replace what is already destroyed by the replanting of trees, our supply, according to the opinion of the Federal forest service, will be exhausted in thirty-five years. The greatest waste of timber is caused by fires, and the record of the United States is the most shameful of all the world.
“In 1907 (Mr. Humphrey added), the property destroyed by fire amounted to the enormous total of $215,000,000—a per-capita loss of $2.51. Of this loss, $146,(100,000 was in frame buildings and but $⅝000,(*X) in brick and stone. This terrible waste is not equaled by any other nation. Our per-capita is nearly eight times that of Europe, which is reported by the National Board of Fire Underwriters as but 33 cents for six leading countries. Under similar conditions, the fireloss in this country for 1907 would have been but $27,000,000 and $187,000,000 would have been saved. Nor is this all. The United States has the finest and most efficient firefighting apparatus and private fire protection system in the world. Eliminating the loss through property destroyed in fires, the cost of lire protection for 1907, amounted to $241,401,442. There was paid to insurance companies in excess of what they returned as losses, $145,0003)00; the fire departments cost fully $50,000,000; private nrotection systems, $18,000,000. Altogether the total cost of fires in the United States during 1907 amounted to $456,486,151—$5.34 per-capita—nearly one half the cost of new building construction for the same year, estimated at $1,000,000,000.
“Confronted by such startling figures as these, we naturally look for the cause, and it is easy to find. This country is filled with buildings so faultily and flimsily constructed that they are a constant menace. In our large cities are thousands of firetraps. any one of which may at any time cause a conflagration that will wipe out millions of dollars worth of property and destroy the lives of many people. Our villages and hamlets are for the most part a collection of firetraps. In many instances, our theatres and assemblage halls are on the upper floors of frame buildings. It is a crime against humanity to permit public assemblages above the first floor in any building that is not fireproof. It is a crime to have a public meeting place in any building that is not tireproof. The sooner the authorities are brought to such a realisation of this as will lead to the adoption of adequate laws and their rigid enforcement, the sooner will these terrible holocausts cease. The people of Cleveland have had one fearful lesson in the past year in the burning of the Collinwood schoolhouse, in which the lives of more than ISO little children were lost. While this may be charged up to bad construction, those responsible for the conditions which permit such structures to exist and to be occupied for such purposes should be criminally liable. One year ago tomorrow another frightful object lesson was afforded in the fire which destroyed the Boyertown, Pa., opera house and resulted in the death of nearly 200 women and children who were unable to escape. Instead of profiting by these awful experiences, as would naturally be supposed, the country, after the horror of the disaster has ceased to attract attention, lapses into an indifference which can be removed only by another similar disaster. Scattered all over this country are Collinwood schoolhouses and Boyertown opera houses, and those disasters will recur, until these buildings are removed and our methods of constructing are changed. In 1906, according to the census authorities, more than 6,000 persons died from burns in this country.
“Deplorable as is the needless and criminal loss of life in fires there is another phase of the question that is most serious—the enormous drain on our natural resources resulting from the annual destruction of millions of dollars worth of property by fire, which is not possible under European standards. Last April, a conflagration at Chelsea, Mass., resulted in an insurance loss of more than $8,000,000. Such conflagrations are possible in practically every big city in the country. D. S. Creamer, fire marshal of Ohio, states in his annual report for 1907 that a conflagration costing $300,000,000 is entirely possible at any time in this city of Cleveland and in its sister city Cincinnati. These conditions are often attributed to a desire on the part of property owners to erect their buildings as cheaply as possible, in order to obtain the highest return from their investment. While this may be true in some cases, I think the real reason is that we have not as yet outgrown our primitive conditions which necessarily prevail in newly settled countries. Proper, conservative and safe building laws are the result of years of experience, and that is why Europe shows up to such advantage when compared to this country.
“While our building knowledge has hardly developed into a science, we are learning rapidly the methods and materials necessary to secure the safety desired. The American people are not slow in adopting improvements, when once their value is established. In the last few years we have made wonderful strides towards better construction, under the helpful guidance of the United States government. For many years the Federal officials have realised the seriousness of these conditions and the utter lack of knowledge concerning the properties of building materials. With the government spending $40,000,000 annually in the construction of public works, it was found necessary to inaugurate an elaborate series of experiments, in order that the money should be expended wisely—for the government does not insure its buildings, but rather strives to make them fireproof. The lack of finding out the best materials for such structures was assigned several years ago to the Technologic branch of the United States Geological Survey, under the direction of Dr. Joseph A. Holmes, expert in charge. These experiments have continued up to the present time, and, although they have been conducted primarily in behalf of the government, the results have been given freely to builders, engineers, architects and the public generally.
“In the revision of the building laws of the country, the progress has been extremely slow, for the reason that a certain inertia must be overcome in removing the prejudice against changing existing laws. The influence of various interests opposed to this revision for commercial reasons has been another factor in preventing the adoption of better laws. Adequate laws are the first essential in bringing about the conditions that will prevent the big annual fire losses. Laws must be enacted that will not only regulate new construction, but uill invest in the building authorities the right to condemn structures whose very existence are a menace to public safety. This is especially true in great cities like New York, where the presence of innumerable firetraps is a constant danger, which, unless eliminated, may some day result in a conflagration that will swoop the city. Laws, no matter howperfect they may be, can be of no real value, unless they are rigidly enforced. Many existing laws, if enforced, would prevent the erection of many dangerous structures.
“The most potent influence in the attainment of buildings in which public safety is properly cared for, lies with the people. If every-one could be brought to a full realisation of the dangers ikue to faulty construction, they would soon bring about a reform in methods that would result in permanent progress. It is the duty of the people to demand buildings of the highest fire-resistive type in which to live and work, in which their children may go to school, in which the sick and helpless may be cared for, and in which the people may be amused. If the public would refuse to make use of a building known to be a firetrap, they would apply an effective remedy.”